Preston Ware and other members of the Third Arkansas Infantry unit crowd around a campfire. They are cold and hungry, having just reenacted a skirmish in the Battle of the Round Mountains, the first Civil War battle to take place in the Indian Territory, now called Oklahoma.
With two deadly skirmishes to go, this is going to be a long weekend - and Mr. Ware has already died once.
Why a bunch of grown men would march around in homemade uniforms, shoot blanks at each other, and fall down dead might seem odd to an outsider. But the reasons for reliving history are manifold for the nation's Civil War reenactors, a loose band of men and women who will travel hundreds of miles for a good fight. This is as much about walking in their ancestors' shoes as it is about teaching history to their children.
"You smell the smoke, you feel the kick of the rifle, you taste the black powder in your gums, you feel the adrenaline. That's what this is all about," says Ware, a graphic designer from Mustang, Okla., who is spending an entire late February weekend in a tent outside of Stillwater. "There are times when you're charging up a hill with all these soldiers around you and you lose a sense of time. Boom, you're in 1861."
It's a thrill that keeps many of these reenactors coming back for more, some of them four times a year or more. Some travel back east to participate in the massive battles that turned the Civil War into the nation's deadliest war.
The world of reenactors is a culture all its own. Reenactors sew their own clothes and collect ancient rifles. They wear mutton-chop sideburns year-round, and don authentic wire-rimmed glasses that John Lennon would have envied. They even sleep like Civil War soldiers, eight to a tent, without sleeping bags, in a formation called spoons, so named because they look like spoons stacked in a drawer. Whenever the man at the front of the group gets cold, he wakes up the rest and they all switch direction.
Many reenactors can trace ancestors who fought at Chancellorsburg, or Appomattox, or here in Oklahoma. And while most of the folks here trace their lineage to the South, some begrudgingly don Union uniforms to make the battle seem authentic. Some reenactors can turn brittle about inaccuracies in histories written by the Northern victors, but most go about their business with a sense of humor.
Take Beau Cantrell of El Reno, Okla. Asked who's in charge of his artillery unit, he leans against a cannon and quips, "Well, this is the Confederate Army, so no one's in charge."
A little disarray doesn't bother the crowds who came to get a quick primer on the Battle of the Round Mountains. In November 1861, Indian tribes from Indian Territory, including Choctaw, Creek, Osage, and Cherokee, attempted to leave Oklahoma to join Union troops up in Kansas. Southern troops chased them down, and after three skirmishes, managed to decimate the Indians.
"I came here since the battle dealt with the Creeks," says audience member Shelby Partridge, herself a Creek Indian and a student at Oklahoma State University. One-fourth of the Creek nation was wiped out in the Civil War.
Some historians say this battle was a turning point for Indian tribes in the West.
"This battle made it possible to open up Oklahoma for settlement," says James Smith, a Choctaw tribe member from Krebs, Okla., who participates in four or five reenactments a year. "At Round Mountains, Indians fought on both sides. The pro-Union tribes routed the rebels in the first two skirmishes, led by the charismatic Creek leader Opothle Yahola. But in the end ... only a few Indians reached Kansas to join the Union."
Asked why a grown man would spend a weekend dressed up in a scratchy Union uniform, Steve Onley smiles, and starts pointing at children. "I do it for him, and him, and this young fellow right here," he says, tapping the shoulder of a tall, chubby-cheeked teen dressed in Union blues, who is probably not much younger than the average Civil War infantryman. "I'm teaching my kids history. Along the way, they get the camaraderie of the reenactors. "
But taking part in history is as much an emotional experience as an educational one. Last year, Ware traveled to Gettysburg and was one of 32,000 men who helped reenact General Pickett's famous charge. Everyone knew that sending infantry against that long line of Union soldiers was suicide, but Ware marched on.
"As Southerners, we get very emotional about this battle," says Ware, adding that after the battle, he sobbed. "I felt like it was my fault. I didn't make it to the enemy lines."
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